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Shoplifting, Retail Theft


Illinois Shoplifting Law

Criminal Code 720 ILCS 5/16-25

    Most people instinctively know the legal definition of Illinois Retail Theft: taking merchandise out of a store with the intent to permanently deprive that store of the property.1 And you probably already know that even a first time Shoplifting offense in Illinois is a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to 364 days in jail and a fine of up to $2500.

What you may not know is how to get through a shoplifting arrest in Chicago or the suburbs as quickly as possible and still keep your record clean. That is the purpose of this guide.

In over ten years as a Chicago shoplifting lawyer, I've noticed that the majority of these cases involve people with little to no criminal background, who took the item at least in part for the thrill. After getting caught, the high vanishes and there is often a lot of embarrassment, sometimes even shame, to a degree not seen in most other areas of the law.

And while it's good to learn from experience, and some stress is helpful in decision-making, beating yourself up is counterproductive. As someone who has been down this road hundreds of times, I speak from experience when I say that, with the right approach, work and attention, there is almost always a way through these cases that keeps you whole and uninjured.

There is a saying in survival situations where stress often clouds judgment: "do the next right thing". Here and now, the next right thing is arming yourself with knowledge. So, without further introduction, here is what you need to know if you are charged with Shoplifting in Chicago or the suburban courts:

I. What is the Best Way to Get Through a Cook County Shoplifting Case?

II. How to Beat a Shoplifting Case in Illinois

III. Dealing With Demands for Payment From Store Lawyers 

IV. Can Felony Shoplifting Be Reduced to a Misdemeanor? Can Misdemeanors Be Upgraded to a Felony?

V. What is a Village Ordinance Citation for Shoplifting?

VI. Shoplifting and Immigration Consequences: Can I Be Deported For Shoplifting? Will It Prevent Citizenship?

VII. Final Thoughts: Pricing, Service Guarantees, Attorney Profile, Contact Information 

I. What is the Best Way to Get Through a Cook County Shoplifting Case?

Often, the quickest way to achieve your goals in a shoplifting case is by negotiating an agreement with prosecutors. This path is "best" because it has some unique advantages: it's takes risk out of the equation, it can get retail theft charges dismissed without you admitting guilt, it's relatively fast and it is the lowest cost option. 

One of the best such negotiated agreements is "Theft School" a deferred prosecution program designed specifically for Retail Theft cases in Cook County. What is great about this program is that, if you complete it successfully, you return for a second court date at which point the charges are formally dismissed.

This doesn't mean that there is no record of your arrest. Even with Retail Theft charges dismissed, there is still an official record of what happened with the court clerk, police department and possibly state police. But with the case dismissed, you qualify to have it destroyed or, "expunged", as soon as possible.2 This is much better than receiving "supervision" because, even though supervision means there is no state conviction on your record3, it still involves pleading guilty, which requires you wait for years before you can expunge the record.

The question then becomes, how do you get into the Theft School program? Some clients and cases are a better fit than others. And, as a negotiated agreement, whether you get into this program is entirely up to the discretion of the prosecutor's office.

There are ways to increase the chances of this outcome. Putting together a snapshot of the story of "you", supported by documentary evidence, is an indispensable tactic. Every client is unique, but there is almost always something about you that helps in negotiations. Some clients are too modest to know what it is and it often takes gentle prying to discover: Are you in school? How are your grades? Are you involved in the community? Perhaps you volunteer at local charitable organizations? Are you or your parents going through a stressful divorce? Perhaps you are a senior citizen recently widowed? Are you here on an immigrant visa and cannot plead guilty because you have dreams of one day becoming a U.S. citizen? Are you a veteran? All of these are ways to help the prosecutor in charge of your case see you as a person, rather than just another file among hundreds of them.

Deal-making is an opportunity that should be taken seriously in order to give the client the best possible advantage. Whoever represents you should take the time to get to know you and compile supporting evidence, rather than making a half-hearted request for an offer from the prosecutor on the day of court.

For more on this, read my guide on Your Settlement Options

Should I represent myself?

I would never recommend anyone I care about represent themselves in court on an Illinois Retail Theft. People often underestimate the damage these charges can do. While jail time is unlikely for a first time Shoplifting offense in Illinois, theft is a nasty thing to have on your record. Potential employers see it on a background check and you instantly lose income potential and career opportunities. It can also affect immigration status and professional licensure in unpredictable ways. It's almost never a good idea to save a few hundred dollars now at the expense of thousands of dollars and lost opportunities later. 

It's true that some stores do not show up to court to press charges. But, if the merchant does not show on the first court date, the prosecutor can simply get another date for the merchant to appear. And, even if the case is dismissed, there are technical best practices, like filing a written demand, that protect you from charges being refiled and from avoidable delay in expunging the case.4

Most stores, like Nordstrom's, Macy's and Apple, for example, almost always appear. Generally, big name department stores have full-time loss prevention employees whose sole duty is showing up to court and pressing charges. In my experience, and not based on any empirical data, stores do not press charges in about 15% of Chicago retail theft cases. This number is much lower in the suburban courts, with stores almost always appearing in Skokie and Rolling Meadows for some reason.

II. How to Beat a Shoplifting Case in Illinois

In some cases, you are unable to get the deal you want. This happens most often in Felony Retail Theft cases, misdemeanors with a high dollar amount or if you have other arrests in your background.

So what do you do if you just cannot plead guilty but are unable to get the negotiated agreement you want from prosecutors or the judge?

In such a case, your other option is demanding a trial. With the right approach, you can beat a Retail Theft case, even ones that seem bleak.

For example, it sometimes happens that people leave the store with an item, not realizing they still have it or otherwise not intending to steal it. Remember, Shoplifting requires intent; if you simply forgot you had the item, you did not intend to steal it and you are "not guilty" of Retail Theft:

Example: David is a recent immigrant to Skokie, Illinois and 30 year-old father of 4 year-old twins. Shopping in the Apple Store at Old Orchard mall with his family one day, David's twins run out of the store. David runs after them, not realizing he has a pair of Apple's cordless headphones in his hands that he has not yet paid for. The alarm is triggered, and store security instantly descend upon David. He tries explaining the situation, but to no avail given the store's zero-tolerance policy. He is charged with Retail Theft. 

David has a potentially strong defense because he did not intend to take the item, he simply acted in a knee-jerk fashion to protect his children. If properly handled at trial, David should be found "not guilty" of Shoplifting. (Based on a real life case)

This is just one example of a winning defense, but the possibilities are infinite. The takeaway is that, while settlement is preferable in Shoplifting cases, there are strategies in place for dealing with unsuccessful negotiations. False arrests and accusations happen all the time, and that's the main reason trials exist.

III. Dealing With Demands for Payment From Store Lawyers 

You may receive a letter from a lawyer or law firm representing the store you are accused of shoplifting from demanding payment of a fine, usually $1000. Should you pay it?

It is true that Illinois law authorizes stores to collect money equal to the full retail value of the items taken, up to a $1000 penalty as well as costs and attorney's fees. And it is also true that parents are financially liable if their child is less than 19 years old and lives at home with his or her parents.5  

In my experience, however, stores rarely follow through on this threat. It is simply too costly to file a civil lawsuit against every person accused of stealing from them. Rather, sending these letters is a low-cost way to "shake the tree" in hopes that at least some people will pay. Sending out these letters is, after all, a low cost method. If 10% of people who receive them pay the demand, the store has profited immensely.

Despite this information, some clients choose to pay the demand simply to avoid the stress of a potential small clam civil lawsuit. If you are considering doing this, you should at least delay until after the criminal case is over. You should also have your attorney arrange and pay the settlement in order to avoid making a direct admission of theft.

IV. Can Felony Shoplifting Be Reduced to a Misdemeanor? Can Misdemeanors Be Upgraded to a Felony?

The answer to both these questions is "yes". Felonies can be reduced to Misdemeanors and Misdemeanors can be upgraded to felonies.

By law, shoplifting is a Misdemeanor, unless the item is valued at more than $300, in which case it is a Felony.6 

But there are many cases in which the item stolen is less than $300 but can still be charged as a Felony.  For example, depending on your criminal background, Shoplifting can be charged as a Class 4 Felony, even if the item is valued at less than $300. And, theft that uses an emergency exit is a Class 4 Felony, even if the item is valued at under $300.

Similarly, sometimes the item is valued at more than $300 and charged as a Misdemeanor. Indeed, the Cook County State's Attorney explicit policy is to not charge most retail thefts under $1000 as a Felony. And efforts are under way in Springfield to raise the bar for Felony shoplifting to an even higher dollar amount.

V. What is a Village Ordinance Citation for Shoplifting?

You may have received a village ordinance citation for Shoplifting rather than a criminal complaint and wondering whether is this better or worse than being criminally charged.

The answer is that it depends on which village, town or city issues the citation. Every town has its own code governing the nature and penalties of these offenses, and they are all totally different. Most of the time they are "petty offenses", meaning they are not punishable by jail time. In every ordinance citation case, however, the attorney should thoroughly read the town's code and not assume that it is similar to the state law they are familiar with.

But, if you are concerned about keeping a clean record, these ordinance citations are no less serious than criminal charges. In fact, they are in some ways worse because there is usually no existing program that allows you to settle the case without pleading guilty. This does not mean you cannot settle the case without pleading guilty, just that there is no existing program for doing so, like there is in Cook County criminal courts.

The creative defense lawyer should find ways to do settle even village prosecutions in a way that does not require you to plead guilty. For more on this strategy, please read my guide on Your Settlement Options.

VI. Shoplifting and Immigration Consequences: Can I Be Deported For Shoplifting? Will Retail Theft Prevent Me Becoming a Citizen?

The issue of immigration consequences usually comes up with Shoplifting cases in two ways. First, clients in the U.S. on a visa or in the country as Legal Permanent Residents (LPR) want to know if a Shoplifting arrest can get them deported. And second, Legal Permanent Residents want to know if Shoplifting arrests will prevent them from becoming a citizen.  


Under President Trump, USCIS is aggressively stepping up deportations. There is therefore some truth to the concern that a Shoplifting arrest can result in deportation, also known as "removal" proceedings.

Theft is considered by federal law to be a "crime of moral turpitude" and convictions for such crimes are deportable if it was committed within five years of entry into the U.S.8

There is however, an exception to this rule called the "petty offense" exception that could protect you from deportation. Depending on your background and the specific type of Retail Theft you are accused of, Illinois Shoplifting is often considered a petty offense and therefore safe from deportation so long as other conditions are met. For example, you can only have committed one such crime ever. 

This is a greatly abbreviated summary of avoiding deportation in Shoplifting cases. For now, know that the danger is real and it does happen, even to good people who have never been in trouble before. Immigration is an area of the law that is constantly changing, complex and incredibly case specific.

Naturalization and Citizenship

As for whether Shoplifting affects the naturalization and citizenship process, there is some truth to that concern also. Approval for U.S. citizenship requires you prove that you are a "person of good moral character."9 As a "crime of moral turpitude" under federal law, a Shoplifting conviction can hurt you, especially if it is within five years of apply for citizenship.

Note also that "conviction" does not mean the same thing under federal law as it does under Illinois state law.3 So, if you plead guilty or are found guilty of Shoplifting, it is best to wait five years until applying for citizenship. But even after waiting five years, you are not safe from denial of citizenship. The much better strategy is to do everything you can now to avoid pleading or being found guilty in the criminal case

Will Expunging My Record Help?

No, expungement does not help avoid deportation or improve your chances of citizenship. Once you are fingerprinted, your record goes into a federal database and expunging the record on the state level does not affect that. While it is still a good idea to expunge, it won't help you for immigration purposes.

Also, if you do expunge, make sure to get a certified copy of disposition before you have the record destroyed. You will need to show this to USCIS and if you don't get it before the record is expunged, it's a lot harder to secure. If you have already expunged the case, however, and need a certified copy of disposition, there are ways to reopen the file and get one, it's just more complicated at that point.

The immigration law is what it is, and there is nothing you can do to change that. What you do have some control over, however, is getting the best possible outcome in the criminal case. Being able to say that you were accused, maintained your innocence and had the case totally dismissed gives you the best chances of avoiding deportation and successfully applying for citizenship.

VII. Final Thoughts: Pricing, Service Guarantees, Attorney Profile, Contact Information 

It may help to know that you are far from alone in facing Retail Theft charges. Shoplifting is the second most charged felony in Cook County, with Chicago seeing 1,668 cases and the suburbs prosecuting 1,393 cases.10 But, while every case is unique, these charges do follow a predictable procedural pattern that the experienced Shoplifting attorney will know how to use to your advantage.

For more, read my pricing policy and service guarantees for information on fees and how you should expect to be treated during your case.

For information on me, read biography.

If after reading this page you would like more information tailored to the unique facts of your case, you are invited to call me at 312.396.4112, or contact me online.

Legal References

1. 720 ILCS 5/16-25

2. By law, courts must wait 60 days from the date a petition is served on the prosecutor, State Police, the arresting agency and the chief legal officer of the unit of local government effecting the arrest. 20 ILCS 2630/5.2(b)(5). Thus is it is important to serve these petitions via certified mail in order to know the exact date of service. This doesn't mean that all courts will decided as soon as 60 days is up, just that they have to wait at least 60 days before deciding. 

Note that, even when expunged from government files, if you were fingerprinted, the record of your case still exists at the federal level. And expungements do not affect private records, for example, inclusion in the private National Retail Theft Database or private criminal background search companies. The solution, however, is still getting through the Shoplifting case as fast as you can without admitting guilt so that, if it does come up, you can honestly say you were accused, you maintained your innocence and the case was totally dismissed.

3. Supervision means there is no conviction under Illinois state law, but federal law still considers it and almost any guilty plea a "conviction" for immigration purposes. Your brain will hurt trying to understand why this is so. Some things in the law make no sense, and don't have a "why"; this is one of them.

4. Failing to file a written trial demand can delay your expungement petition from being approved by up to 18 months and longer for if you are trying to expunge a felony Retail Theft. This is because the statute of limitations for misdemeanors in Illinois is 18 months. This means that the prosecutor can re-file dismissed charges anytime within that period. Because of this possibility, judges can be reluctant to destroy the record of a case that is still active. Filing a written trial demand under 725 ILCS 5/103-5 shortens this period to as short as 120 days.

5. 720 ILCS 5/16-27

6. 720 ILCS 5/16-25

7. 8 USC 1251

8. INA 237(a)(2)(A)(i), 8 USC 1227(a)(2)(A)(i)

9. 8 CFR 316.10

10. Cook County State's Attorney Data Report, October 2017

Serving clients throughout the Chicago metropolitan area including those in the following localities:

Cook County including Chicago, Arlington Heights, Cicero, Evanston, Palatine, Schaumburg, Skokie, and Tinley Park; DuPage County including Downers Grove, Elmhurst, Naperville, and Wheaton; Kane County including Aurora, Elgin, and Hoffman Estates; Kendall County including Yorkville and Oswego; Lake County including Buffalo Grove and Waukegan; and Will County including Bolingbrook and Joliet.